The Passing of Dominica’s Former Ambassador to Italy and to the UN’s FAO, IFAD and WFP Hannelore “Angela” Benjamin

By

Gabriel J. Christian, Esq.

Ambassador Hannelore “Angela” Benjamin Dominica’s Former Permanent Representative at the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO)

 

 

On July 15, 2020, Dominica’s former Ambassador to the Republic of Italy and to the United Nation’s Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and World Food Programme (WFP), Ambassador Hannelore “Angela” Benjamin, was buried in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside Washington D.C. Her daughter Alessandra delivered the eulogy, and remarks and prayers were made by the presiding Roman Catholic priest and a few friends. Her son McDonald followed by Zoom from Costa Rica, unable to make it to his mother’s funeral due to COVID-19 restrictions on travel. Ambassador Benjamin was laid to rest next to her husband, Dominica’s late Ambassador to the United States and to Italy, Dr. McDonald Benjamin. Above the grave, the Commonwealth of Dominica’s flag fluttered atop the headstone in the warm summer breeze, in silent tribute to the life of service to our island by two distinguished public servants reunited in death.

 

Ambassador Hannelore “Angela” Benjamin was born in Dortmund, Germany on 4th February 1936 and died in Alexandria, Virginia on 10th July, 2020.  Her parents were Ewald and Maria Sichmann. She underwent tremendous hardships as a small child during World War II that were greatly magnified by her family’s stance against the Nazi government, but thanks to the courage and strength of her parents and of her beloved grandmother, Hannelore Benjamin persisted and was able to graduate in tax and finance studies and obtain employment at a bank, thereby helping her family during the hardship years immediately following the war.  She was a dreamer and an adventurer, and with the small savings she had accumulated, she crossed the Atlantic by boat in 1961 to the United States, and travelled across to Los Angeles.

 

It was there that she met McDonald Benjamin, a young scholar born in Coulibistrie, Dominica, who was completing his PhD in Business Administration at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and the couple fell in love. It was a time of heightened racial tensions in the United States, and yet both Angela and McDonald Benjamin looked beyond their different origins to see the goodness and love inside each other. They got married on February 28, 1963 in Washington, D.C., thereby realizing their dream exactly six months before Martin Luther King would proclaim unforgettably from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that: “I have a dream…”

 

Their first child, McDonald Benjamin Jr., was born in January 1964, and three months later the small family moved to Panama for a year and then on to Rome, Italy, where their second child, Sandra “Alessandra” Benjamin, was born in February 1966. McDonald Benjamin had a distinguished career at FAO, helping to establish the FAO-World Bank Cooperative Programme, taking a secondment to Barbados in 1971 to work with Sir Arthur Lewis in establishing the Caribbean Development Bank, and returning to Rome to help establish the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in 1974, where he served as a Director for Projects until his retirement in 1986.  An article on Dr. McDonald Benjamin’s work is linked here: https://rebuilddominica.org/2018/01/15/a-bio-note-on-dr-mcdonald-benjamin-a-family-legacy-of-service/

 

During this time, Angela Benjamin not only raised her children McDonald Jr. and Sandra as a devoted mother, and developed her tremendous artistic talent in ancient Persian porcelain painting, but also dedicated herself to serving the poor, first as Treasurer and then as President of the United Nations Women’s Guild (UNWG). During her tenure with the UNWG, with her dynamism, creativity and drive, she increased the resources of the organization 40-fold and applied them to countless projects for poor children around the world, including for children with skin burns in Brazil, malnourished indigenous children in Panama, operations to restore vision to children in Bangladesh, Braille machines for vision-impaired children in the Sahel Zone in Africa, and projects for indigenous Carib children in Dominica, among many, many others.

 

After his retirement from the United Nations in 1986, McDonald Benjamin was invited by Dame Eugenia Charles to become Dominica’s Ambassador to the United States, to Italy, and to the UN agencies based in Rome: FAO, IFAD and the World Food Programme. Dame Charles was, moreover, so inspired by Angela Benjamin’s work and her love of Dominica that she appointed Angela Benjamin as Dominica’s Alternate Permanent Representative to FAO, IFAD and the UN, even though she was a German citizen.

 

The couple worked together tirelessly as a team to bring projects, investments and tourism to Dominica, volunteering their time, their homes in Italy and the US, and their cars for free, and running the Embassies in Rome and Washington on shoestring budgets, while bringing in over US$25 million in new grants and projects to Dominica, especially for Dominica’s farmers, over their years of service. For example, during her time at the FAO, Ambassador Benjamin fought hard to protect Dominica’s banana growers, sought investments in passion fruit and promoted coconut rehabilitation on Dominica with a mind to starting a coconut water bottling industry on the island. Their efforts to support Dominica in Washington DC earned them admiring coverage in an article in the Washington Post:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1988/12/29/embassy-is-family-affair/6145673c-0836-44ff-9e77-4638e1168c80/

 

When Ambassador McDonald Benjamin passed away in October 1989, Angela Benjamin continued his work as Ambassador to Italy and as Permanent Representative to the UN Agencies in Rome, and was even offered the Ambassadorship to the United States but declined, feeling that she could serve Dominica better by concentrating her hard work in Rome, although thanks to her extensive contacts in Washington DC she also supported Dominica’s Prime Ministers on their official visits to the US, and she was an active member of the Dominican community in Washington DC.  Ambassador Angela Benjamin would go on to serve the people of Dominica under five different Prime Ministers before submitting her resignation in 2011 at the age of 75.

 

Ambassador Angela Benjamin was a sincere and stalwart supporter of the DC area Dominican community via the Dominica Association of Washington, D.C. in the 1980s and 1990s. In one memorable meeting to prepare for the 1989 Dominica Independence Day Breakfast at the Organization of American States Hall of Nations, she was skeptical of a promotional video sent to our association by the National Development Corporation. The video showed some local middle-aged women jiggling their waists at a village street fête. She wagged her finger at me and said sternly, “Gabriel, I don’t want you to show that video of our women. It is not nice. It is not serious. Let us show the world our women working in a laboratory, a shop, some industry, doing something productive.” That remark remains with me some thirty-one years later, because it was emblematic of Ambassador Benjamin’s sense of gravitas. She was kind, yet stern, sincere and possessed of a disciplined focus on ways in which she could help Dominica prosper. Her focus was not only on agriculture, as in 1988-1989, she worked with the Dominica Association of Washington, D.C. on a project to provide linen to the Princess Margaret Hospital via a partnership with Partners for the Americas. https://www.partners.net/what-we-do.

 

Ambassador Benjamin was a close friend of the late Prime Minister Dame Mary Eugenia Charles, through whom I got to know her. Often, to save Dominica’s treasury from paying expensive Washington D.C. area hotel expenses, Prime Minister Charles would stay at Ambassador Benjamin’s home in Alexandria, Virginia. In one late night visit during the late 1980s with then Dominica Association President Simpson “Sizzo” Gregoire and myself, Prime Minister Charles and the Ambassador sat on the edge of a bed, encouraging us to gather Dominicans in the cause of national development. It is of note that Dr. Thomson Fontaine, then an economist at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), found pleasure in discussing development projects and seeking collaboration with Ambassador Benjamin as well. The memory of those two honorable, passionate, and stalwart defenders of Dominica’s good name and development priorities are burnt indelibly in my memory.  It was therefore only fitting and proper that the bronze plaque on the headstone above Ambassador Benjamin’s late husband’s grave read: “Ambassador Benjamin devoted his life to eradicating poverty and hunger in the Third World.” Such a fitting epitaph equally applies to his late wife, Dominica’s distinguished Ambassador Hannelore “Angela” Benjamin.

 

The Benjamin’s had two children, McDonald Benjamin Jr., and Alessandra Benjamin. McDonald Jr., or “Mac”, has had a distinguished career at the World Bank, serving in a managerial capacity in various assignments in Africa and Latin America. He holds a PhD in Economics from Georgetown University and a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Oxford University.  Mac Benjamin last served as the World Bank’s Country Manager for the Dominican Republic, after serving as Sector Manager for Social Development in Latin America, and Deputy Director for several countries in Africa, as well as in earlier service assignments in Asia. Alessandra Benjamin is a creative and performing artists, known for her acting roles in The Haunting (1999), Shuffle (2011) and On the Edge (2002). Earlier, based in Germany, she led several national and global advertising campaigns and won awards as Art Director for the multinational advertising agencies Young and Rubicam and for J. Walter Thompson. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in fine arts (BFA), with a special emphasis on graphic design, from the University of Miami. Sandra, as with her deceased mother, is a strong supporter of Rebuild Dominica and recently did an article on making masks at home as part of that organization’s contribution to promoting anti-COVID 19 measures. https://rebuilddominica.org/2020/03/27/sandra-benjamin-face-mask-project/.

 

Ambassador Hannelore “Angela” Benjamin served Dominicans at home and abroad loyally and well. Her cause, focused on food security and on helping poor children, was humanity’s cause.  Those of us who knew of her efforts shall remain eternally grateful for them. After Hurricane Maria devastated Dominica in 2017, though bedridden, she made her presence felt by her monetary contributions to the relief effort, and to her final day she continued to make charitable contributions to improve the welfare of the most vulnerable.  At this time, our condolences go out to her family and friends. We shall remember her well.

 

Gabriel J. Christian, Esq.

President, Dominica Association of Washington, DC (1990-1998)